The short version of my question is, what to do when day-to-day survival and long-term aspirations are incompatible?
The long form: there’s this Annie Dillard quote, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” and I don’t *think* it’s supposed to feel awful, but like that Eleanor Roosevelt(?) saw about how “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” it… does. Feel awful. I never meant to spend my life like this.
Once I lived in rad group houses with my friends, rode my bike everywhere, felt independent yet pleasantly interdependent, and felt free to express my queer anarchist art self. I met a rad person, we were solid friends for several years, and then we fell in love. He was, and remains, fantastically interested in and supportive of what I’m doing, what I’m interested in, what I’m thinking. We moved in together and a few years later we got married. Our roommates were awful and the house was far from my usual haunts, but that’s bay area real estate for you.
I got a job that made me feel stupid and incompetent, and stayed there for four years. (My first serious relationship had the same dynamic. Why? My parents are lovely and raised me right, but somehow I’m vulnerable to the suggestion that I’m terrible and only this one person/job could possibly put up with me.) Then the 2016 election happened. Then I got cancer. Then I just… quit having feelings. Battened down the hatches and avoided everything that might threaten my control. Stopped reading fiction, didn’t listen to music, made some really rote art, cancer stole my sexuality, and living in the almost-suburbs was an easy logistical excuse when my friends went out dancing. My one feeling was “angry” and I was angry about everything. I’m still mad – I don’t know how/why not to be anymore – but my anxiety level is steadily rising and I suspect there is a monstrous sadness under those boards I nailed over my heart.
I didn’t think the pandemic was gonna be this bad for me personally. I’ve always been sort of a homebody (or, that deadly combination, a homebody prone to FOMO). I had already quit the horrible job. We moved to the actual suburbs (ow, my punk rock ego), with no awful roommates (hooray). My husband’s business can be done without COVID danger, and can support both of us, so I could suspend my pointless job hunt. I don’t have to freak out about food and rent and I have more time to spend making art than ever before – I literally used to daydream about this – but the art feels boring and/or compulsive and I’ve never been more lonely. My situational casual friendships and community are on hiatus (or secretly hanging out without me; see FOMO), and three of my dearest friends have moved away, and another is dying, and I miss them, and I miss *myself.* I miss my husband – who has to have noticed, but he’s constantly tired from work and probably doing the same sort of internet-based coping that I am and we sort of keep different hours and after four years I have no idea how to even start the conversation. The best connection I’ve had in ages was with an old housemate I don’t really like – he called to ask me an obnoxious question and I don’t give a shit what he thinks of me, so we just had an entirely honest conversation and it felt like cool water after years in the desert. And then I hung up the phone and the water just seeped away into the sand. How to… be a person? Anymore?
It’s obvious that this is a GURL GET PROFESSIONAL HELP situation and I want to assure you that I am. I’m doing OK at “this is depression/anxiety talking and not The Voice Of God.” I really understand, finally, that I can’t just keep myself boarded up for the rest of my life, and I guess that’s progress? But I’ve had a peek behind those boards recently and it’s fucking awful in there. How on earth can I reclaim a feeling, vulnerable, honest *life* when the only thing that gets me through each *day* is the sort of superficial, disassociative behavior that got me to this terrible spot?
She/her pronouns please. Thanks for listening.
Hello, thanks for writing and thank you also for expressing a very relatable thing for many people in this Plague Year, where the BeforeTimes™ and the AfterTimes™ feel equally distant. It’s all middle, somehow. It’s all February, all the way down. Those of us who have survived this long are grateful for it, but maybe we don’t feel particularly grateful, and then we’re guilty for feeling ungrateful, and then we’re mad again.
Numbness and compartmentalization can be survival skills, but I think you are right that you can only go so long without feeling your feelings. You mentioned anger, as if there is something wrong with feeling angry, and anger sounds like a good starting point to me. I’m picturing a baby bird in a shell, an angry little beak about to make the first strike against the brittle egg. What emerges won’t be pretty, all screaming, and bewildered, and surrounded by shattered things, but it will be alive.
I am going to leave sorting out professional help and long-term brain and feelings-care to you. There is healing that needs to happen that is well above my pay grade and allotted time.
Instead I am going to give you a series of non-mandatory assignments for some things you might do with your days between now and when you’re ready to make that first screaming peck. Little art projects, letter writing, daydreams, rambles, love, a syllabus for doing things that might point you in the direction of feelings.
Assignment 1: Tomorrow
Your friend is dying. Get out a notebook or whatever you use to write with. Write down some stories:
- The first time you met them. What did you think, what did you imagine about this person? Did you know how important they would become in your life?
- The last day you saw them face-to-face. What were you doing? What was everyone wearing? What did it smell like, what did you eat, what did they say? How did you feel? Did you know it would be the last time for a while? What do you want to remember about that time?
- The best day you can ever remember spending in their company. The day you would want to go back to and live in, if you could.
- Something they taught you/gave you. What did you learn, and how? What pieces of them – jokes, language, habits – have become a part of you? Is there a gift they gave you that you love and use all the time?
- Something you admire about them. Something that makes you proud.
- Something you need to apologize for. (If anything) What do you wish you had done or said instead?
- A daydream about this friend. If you could do anything or go anywhere with this friend again, where would you go? What would you do>
Don’t be literary, don’t edit, don’t worry about a coherent narrative (snapshots/glimpses/snippets are fine), just write, as true and simple and vivid as you can what happened, what you remember. Fix this person in your memory the way you want to hold onto them forever.
Also tomorrow: Gather all the photos you have of this friend, all the photos of you and this friend together. Get the best of them printed at the local drugstore so you have physical objects.
Friday, write a letter to this friend and tell them how much you love them and will miss them and the best things you remember about them. Use as much or as little as your journaling as you wish. Pick up your photo prints and put copies of the photos in the letter. Mail everything to your friend.
If they are still in the world, then you still have time to tell them how much you love them. If they can’t read the letter for some reason, someone close by who also loves them will read it to them, or for them, and know that their love and grief are shared.
You feel enormous grief, true, but you also feel enormous love. Let it in, and then give it away. There is still time.
Assignment 2: Next Week/Next Year
Consider your three closest friends who moved away. Is it possible to plan a getaway with them for approximately a year from now? One long weekend. One rental house or cabin that sleeps all of you. No bras or waistbands required. All of the snacks. Mixes of everyone’s favorite music.
I have a group of friends who do annual getaways like this in non-pandemic years, no spouses or partners or kids. It is the best. Almost exactly a year ago, I returned to Washington, D.C. for my 46th birthday and saw my very best friends from when I was 26, all gathered in the same room for the first time in 20 years. I also got to meet some longtime internet friends in person for the first time. It was the best. It’s not the sightseeing, or parties, or any particular place we ate or went that makes it magical, it’s the luxury of unlimited downtime to sit and talk with people and catch up with them about all the things that don’t get posted on social media or conveyed in texts or emails or Zooms. To say “how are you?” and look into their eyes while they tell you, for real, but nobody has to rush off anywhere because the wedding is starting soon or the babysitter needs to go home. It is the best.
You can have this if you want it, I think. Start making the plan.
Assignment 3: Art (On-going)
As you get time, little by little, create (if necessary) and revisit the archive of every piece of art you’ve ever made that you still have access to/copies of/drafts of/notes for/images of.
Within this archive, locate and make note of the following items:
- The first thing you ever made in your chosen medium. Go back as far as you can. Where did you start?
- The first good thing you made. The first thing that made you think, “I’m pretty proud of this.” “I understand how to do this.”
- The best thing you made. The thing that you’re most proud of to show others, maybe the thing that got the most positive response from others, but also, the thing that came the closest to what was in your mind’s eye.
- The thing it was the most fun to make. Maybe it came out great, maybe not so much, but it was a pleasure to work on it.
- The almost-thing. You had such hopes and ambitions for it, it was even fun to work on it sometimes, maybe, but it never quite came together or landed.
- Bonus: Something that is not covered by the above list that you have strong negative feelings about when you revisit it. The thing you loved but your art teacher and fellow students hated. The thing it felt too scary to make. The thing that made you doubt your abilities. The thing that feels too sad, too faraway to even look at now.
Write/reflect a little bit. What do these things have in common – aesthetically, subject-wise, medium? I did this once and realize that all of my student film protagonists are trying to break free of something, and they all wear this certain shade of pink when they do, and it was an accident (what skirt they brought to set, a borrowed jacket from a crew member on a freezing day, a recent dye job) but it was still true, it was still there. The color of “getting away” is hot pink, for me.
What was going on in your life when you created each of them? Were there support systems, inspirations, funding, material, collaborations that helped? Who was a fan and cheerleader of this work?
Choose one of the pieces from your initial list or something else from your personal archive. Remake it.
If necessary, change the scale to fit the resources you’re working with now. A short film from 10 years ago could become a stage play, or a feature screenplay. Consider changing the medium. A short story to a screenplay, a screenplay or film to a comic, or a stage play reimagined for radio with soundscapes instead of set dressing or stage directions. Turn a poem into a song, a dance into a photograph, a painting into a collage. If it’s a medium you’ve never tried before, so much the better!
It doesn’t have to be skilled. It doesn’t have to be better than the original, or even good. It’s a document of yourself, for yourself. It’s that thing where art is about both an idea or emotion and about solving a specific set of creative problems at a certain time. You don’t feel connected to your emotions right now, you don’t feel capable of expressing them, but you are still making things. So go back, to when it was new, to when you had more feelings than you knew what to do with, and apply the skills, and more importantly, the experience and perspective you have now. What comes out may not be good, but it won’t be bloodless or routine, because you will care about your younger self, and want to do right by her.
Assignment 4: Anger (On-going)
Every time you feel helplessly angry, try to do something about it. Examples, depending on how much energy you have and what you’re mad about:
- Transform “raising awareness” into action. If you share topical articles about world events and policies that make you angry on social media, include information about actions people can take if they want to do something about it, too. “I’m planning on calling my local reps about X bill, here’s the info if you want to call, too.”
- Write or call your local government officials and light a fire under them.
- Donate to your local food bank when you can. Feed somebody.
- Find an activist group that works on an issue you care about. Make a donation that you can afford to support their work.
- Make art about it.
- Clean something. Rage is motivating.
- Repair something. You might not be able to fix systemic issues in one go today but maybe you can do one small thing to make the world a little better.
Inaction breeds anxiety. Start channeling your anger and anxiety into action whenever you can. You don’t have to feel good in order to do good and useful things.
Assignment 5: Seeing (On-going)
Use your phone camera to take a photograph of yourself every day for the next year. It doesn’t have to be artsy, flattering, or posed.
With his consent, use your phone camera to take a photograph of your husband every day for the next year. It doesn’t have to be artsy, flattering, or posed. (There are conversations you need to have with your husband, about daydreams and love and deeper connection and the future. Probably tell your therapist all about that. For now, make a practice where you stop and look at his face for a little while, once a day. See him.)
If you have pets, definitely repeat the above steps.
Look at these faces.
These are the best faces in the whole world!
Assignment 6: Love (On-going)
Once a week, say “I love you” to somebody, and mean it.
Tell somebody you are proud of them. Say thank you, tell people you are grateful for their kindnesses and their work. Tell somebody you are glad to see them. Tell them they look good today. If you want to start feeling feelings, and saying them, possibly in the same year? Start with the love ones. Say them all the time.
(That somebody can be you.)
Assignment 7: Enough
Do not use anything I’ve written here to beat yourself up for not doing more. If you find yourself doing that, stop immediately. Consider this list-making process instead and go back to baby steps.
This is enough for now. You, still in the world, surviving, imperfectly, in your boring suburb, with your half-baked art, and your sweet husband, and the friends you miss, are enough.